Ethical Behavior: Is the cause a character flaw or a faulty system?

This week’s CNN front page story leads to an important question: Is bad behavior caused by a character flaw or a bad system? 

“The former superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools was among the educators who surrendered to authorities Tuesday after being indicted by a grand jury in a cheating scandal that rocked the district and drew national attention.

Beverly Hall resigned from her position in 2011 after a state investigation into large, unexplained test score gains in some Atlanta schools. She has denied any role in the cheating scandal.

A Fulton County grand jury last week indicted 35 educators from the district, including principals, teachers and testing coordinators. They were ordered to turn themselves in by Tuesday, District Attorney Paul Howard said.

By 10:00 p.m., 27 of 35 educators had turned themselves in at the Fulton County Jail to face charges including racketeering, theft by taking and making false statements about their roles in an alleged plot to falsify students’ standardized tests.”

(see CNN staff, 2013)

Who should be blamed? Who should be punished? These are the ubiquitous responses that reflect many individuals, influenced by our U.S. Culture. Hopefully, by the end of this blog post, you will ask a different question: How can I use my power and influence to change the system that led people to perform unethical or undesirable behavior?

W. Edwards Deming said, “Don’t blame people for problems created by the system.” Why? Systems produce behavior. 

Phillip Zimbardo’s infamous Standford Prison Experiment was stopped after only four days.  Ordinary people (who were playing the role of prison guards) were humiliating, verbal abusing, and depriving ordinary people (who acted as prisoners) of basic needs. See the six minute clip here. More recently, Zimbardo said, “The same social psychological processes–deindividualization, anonymity of place, dehumanization, role-playing and social modeling, moral disengagement and group conformity–that acted in the Stanford Prison Experiment were at play at Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo argued” (Dittman, 2004).

Rewarding Outcomes Leads to Bad Processes

Many argue that outcome-based rewards (e.g., financial compensation) for students’ standardized test performance will increase quality teaching (e.g., desirable process). I argue, it will increase cheating (e.g., an undesirable process) to achieving the same outcome. “Beverly Hall is Atlanta’s retired school superintendent. Her system’s turnaround won her national fame, awards, and more than $500,000 in performance bonuses. But investigators say she pressured teachers and principals to cheat, and punished those who refused. Hall, among those indicted, has denied the charges. A grand jury recommended her bail be set at $7.5 million.” (see Examiner). In a recent book chapter, I stated:

It is critical to note the importance of equifinality – different processes achieve the same outcome. Focusing on tests – “teaching to the test” and enhancing test-taking skills – is one route to achieving the desired test outcome. But, this approach will not meet social and emotional needs of students. It won’t develop character and citizenship. It doesn’t facilitate relationships and excite students. The pursuit of a more compassionate AC4P school culture may meet these needs, reduce destructive antisocial and bullying behavior, and build meaningful relationships, and as a byproduct we may improve academic performance as well (McCarty, 2013, see Part III Intro).

Punishing Poor Standardized Performance

“In Washington, evaluations based in part on standardized tests have been used since 2009 to rate teacher performance, putting the city at the forefront of major school systems that are working to reform their personnel practices. All told, nearly 400 teachers have lost their jobs since the new evaluations were put into place.

The latest round of firings occurred last month, when 98 Washington teachers lost their jobs after a rigorous evaluation system found they weren’t up to snuff. The firings attracted no national media attention and little outcry locally. In fact, the president of the teachers union praised the school system for softening some of the evaluation criteria” (see Nuckols, 2012).

Be empathic.

Imagine… you are  a teacher who makes under $35,000 per year at an inner city Washington, DC school. The median household income for parents at your school is around $40,000. Seventy percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch (i.e., measure of low SES – below poverty line). Students are in gangs, fighting to meet basic needs. Should your job depend on your ability alone to get your students at a passing rate for a standardized test? Absolutely not. Unfortunately, in a bad economy with unemployment rate still fairly high, there will be more teachers who take an undesirable path and cheat. It’s not because they are bad people or unethical or flawed in character, it’s because those of us with privilege and power did nothing to support them earlier on.

We didn’t ask: How can we help? We didn’t give our time and resources to support these struggling students proactively. Instead, we took our non-empathic perspective and acted reactively. We want to punish; we want to get even for this “criminal behavior; we point our finger at those teachers who are “wrong”. And as we look at those 35 Atlanta administrators and teachers with a punishment-mentality and ideal, we’ve lost our compassion and our humanity. We forgot we are on the same team. We forget we put these rewards/ punishers in place. For some of us, we finally realized we did it all wrong… WE set up a faulty system. But hey, it’s easier to call it a “character flaw” or “unethical behavior” then to fix the system we built.

So, keep the blame going, or feel guilty that you didn’t do something earlier and fix the system so the next teacher/admin doesn’t have to make that unfair choice between “right” and “wrong.” I recognize we still have choice within systems, but let’s make the choice easier for those in worse-off positions and situations than ourselves. Next time, you do the “ethical” and “right” thing, ask yourself: Did you have to sacrifice your entire career, your passion, and your livelihood to do the right thing? Likely not. So, why should expect teachers to do the same. Let’s help them; not punish them for the faulty system we’ve built.

Thanks for listening,


~ by shanemccarty on April 3, 2013.

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